Sisters JoAnn and Carly Smith agree their shared bedroom in their next house will be blue.
University of Kentucky blue for Carly, who’s 8. Tennessee Titans blue for JoAnn, who’s 9.
In their current apartment in the Housing Authority of Bowling Green’s Angora Court off Old Barren River Road, JoAnn grabbed her mom’s cellphone and swiped to a photo of the family of three standing on the front porch of their dream house.
The house they want was bought and rehabilitated by the housing authority.
“We watched it,” said Linda Stanton, mother of JoAnn and Carly. She listed the projects – new countertops, new flooring, painted cabinets.
Stanton, 41, said she didn’t believe it was possible to buy a house of her own.
She saw others go through the housing authority’s Live the Dream homeownership program, but they had two incomes, so she figured her efforts alone wouldn’t cut it.
After years of taking financial literacy classes, paying off debt, sticking to a budget, saving money and applying for a home loan, she signed a contract Monday that means she’s within 60 days of owning the house in the photo.
Programs in Bowling Green advocate homeownership because it’s a dream people share across income levels that benefits the homeowner and the community.
Abraham Williams, executive director of the housing authority, said homeownership isn’t for everybody, but “it’s for those people who want to have something to give to their kids later on in life. ... It’s a pride thing.”
Stanton said the thrill of homeownership is “knowing I’ve worked hard for something and I can do it on my own.”
“I’ve had my mind and my heart set on it for so long,” she said. “Now all we’re waiting on is to move.”
Fair market rent
Bowling Green’s high rate of renting has much to do with the transitional time of life for the large population of students and young professionals. But the city is also home to families and individuals who can barely afford rent, so forget about qualifying for a home loan.
About 19 percent of Warren County residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, 40.5 percent of renters were considered extremely burdened by the cost of housing. To reach that point means those households spend 35 percent or more of their monthly income on housing costs.
The federal definition of affordable housing says costs should not exceed 30 percent. In Kentucky, 24 percent of households spend 50 percent or more of their monthly income on housing, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
Under a new federal mandate, the housing authority must set its flat rate rent to 80 percent of the fair market rent. In Warren County, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $661, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Williams said the housing authority raised rent by 5 percent this year and will raise it another 10 percent next year to meet the new mandate. Beginning Nov. 1, new residents will pay the higher rate. For two bedrooms, rent increases from $280 to $527. For three bedrooms, it increases from $340 to $669.
The authority has about 300 people on a waiting list for housing. Williams estimated 10 units become available each month.
He said the average person lives in the housing authority for years because they have nowhere else to go. It was designed as a hinge for families needing temporary help. Warren County had 1,817 subsidized housing units in 2012, according to the Kentucky Housing Corp. The data combines information provided by property owners, HUD and KHC’s compliance monitoring data.
“You come in, you balance yourself, you get a better job, you move out,” he said.
Some people have moved out of the housing authority because of the rent hikes. Williams said he advocates homeownership for those people so they can avoid the other limited options.
“We think they’re going to move into substandard places,” Williams said. Bowling Green has “some older houses, and you might have a couple that’s owned the house for years and doesn’t have the money to rehabilitate it.”
Brent Childers, director of Neighborhood and Community Services, said the highest density sections of town have the oldest housing stock. On the west end, the houses are older and were “built generally under no codes.”
In the winter, Childers said, NCS receives complaints from renters with no heat in houses whose owners haven’t maintained adequate investment.
By 2010, about 60 percent of housing in Bowling Green was built before 1989, according to the Census Bureau.
“They’re going to look at the rent, and that’s all they’ll look at, but their utility bill is going to be sky high,” Williams said. “Instead of paying us a few more dollars, they’re going to pay twice or three times as much in utilities.”
Sitting outside the Angora Court housing authority office, Stanton greeted everyone who walked by, some carrying September rent checks.
She’d just come from work on the vacancy crew and still wore her paint-splattered T-shirt and pants. The vacancy crew cleans and repaints apartments after a family moves out.
Before Stanton and her daughters moved into an apartment at the housing authority, she didn’t have a stable home, Stanton said. She applied for an apartment while staying with friends. It was about six months until space opened for her.
She was offered the vacancy crew position after completing the Reach & Reach Higher work program, which provides six to 18 months of on-the-job training for people in different areas. It’s one way the housing authority finds full-time staff.
With stable housing and work, Stanton could consider buying a house. The process has been difficult because of the effort it took to set a budget and pay off debt to improve her credit. She took on a second job eight months ago and saves those wages for the house.
“It’s been stressful. ... We want the house bad,” she said.
Erin Holley, a certified homeownership counselor at the housing authority, said debt poses a consistent obstacle for low-income families who want to buy a house. Many start the required counseling, but don’t finish.
“In a counseling session, I often find that they feel they can’t become a homeowners because they’ve had credit issues or because they know their score isn’t high and it feels like an impossibility,” she said.
“As Americans, we thrive on reaching those goals and obtaining the things we want. And it’s such baby steps and it’s hard to see the progress. I can see the progress because I know how far they’ve come, but when they’re living it and struggling every day, it’s hard for them to keep going at it for so long.”
Those who work for years, following the steps and taking the counseling to heart, are in all-around better shape to own a house, Holley said.
“It’s about giving them hope and showing them they can become a homeowner,” Holley said.
Socioeconomic mobility remains the goal of subsidized housing. Rather than a family paying 50 percent of their income toward housing, they can pay 30 percent, take care of debt and, perhaps, pursue homeownership.
“It’s about building assets,” Holley said. “The equity that you build in a home is an asset and it’s a way for even a low-income family to start building assets and building wealth for their family.”
John Allen, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Bowling Green, said many low-income families have the same dream of homeownership as those who earn more.
“As all of us have grown up and are raised in this country ... it is kind of an innate desire to own your own home,” Allen said.
Homeownership is correlated with better school performance and family stability, Allen said. The community benefits, too. Habitat houses in Hopkinsville, where Allen moved from in July, generated higher property taxes.
In Bowling Green, Habitat is developing a neighborhood of 44 mixed-income houses near the new Dishman-McGinnis Elementary School. Allen said he expects most of the houses in Durbin Estates will be Habitat houses, meaning they will be built for qualifying low-income families or individuals.
The Live the Dream program is open to anyone. The housing authority sells homes that range in price from about $45,000 to $120,000. It targets areas with high numbers of foreclosures to protect homeownership, said Katie Miller, grant coordinator for the housing authority.
“You’re taking homes that oftentimes have been neglected. They’re being purchased and being maintained as homeownership,” Miller said. “That helps to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood.”
Live the Dream started in 2001 and has sold 92 houses, Williams said. Four people who bought homes from the authority have lost them. In each instance, the housing authority bought the house again to sell to another buyer, Williams said.
The city of Bowling Green, the housing authority and HANDS Inc. together developed residential area Lee Square as part of downtown redevelopment. Work started in 2006. City funds and grants allowed the organizations to sell the single-family homes to qualified low- to moderate-income buyers. Miller said the housing authority has built about 20 houses in the development.
Stanton and her daughters have several reasons they want to move out of their apartment and into their own house.
“A bigger backyard,” JoAnn said. A few yards from their apartment’s back patio, a hedge and a fence hide a horse they’ve named Mr. Ed.
The horse sometimes comes when they call, Stanton said, but the owner recently put up an electric fence because children were feeding the horse without his permission.
Stanton looks forward to her own yard, too. She plans to replace the chain-link fence in the back with a privacy fence. She looks forward to decorating for holidays and putting in a bigger garden than the one they keep in front of their apartment.
“Carly wanted some corn. She wanted some corn this year, but I told her we don’t have anywhere to put corn this year,” Stanton said. “Jojo wants a sunflower because she likes sunflower seeds.”
Stanton moved from Evansville to Bowling Green about 16 years ago. She dropped out of school in eighth grade and has worked a series of jobs in factories. As an Angora Court resident, she said she keeps an eye on some of her elderly neighbors.
“I love living here,” she said.
Williams said Stanton will make a good homeowner.
“She’s all the right things,” he said. “She maintained the apartment here, she takes pride in everything she does, she talks about leaving something for her kids.”
He said about 75 percent of houses the authority has sold were purchased by single moms. Single moms make up the majority of housing authority residents, he said.
“She is excited. ... (She) did everything we asked her,” Williams said. “She’s going to be an inspiration.”
“I’m not going to be really happy until they hand me the keys,” Stanton said.
Next Sunday: For the growing population of foreign-born residents of Bowling Green, a place to live is the top priority.